The Half Way Through Review – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Welcome to The Half Way Through Review…

About a fortnight ago I accidentally made a bet with my little sister that I could beat her in a marathon. Since I only tend to run when there are big scary people in pursuit (i.e. when playing rugby), this was a fairly stupid bet to make. Sibling rivalry will not carry me through all 26.2 miles of pain so my Book and Beer Club friends recommended some reading for inspiration. God knows I need the motivation….

The book they lent me was What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami. Its title suggests a memoir of distance running, with a long distance title to match, but it may as well be about novel writing. Either way a very apt read considering my summer plans.

From my marathon inspired Googling I concluded that it is the go-to book about running for anyone with a literary bone in their body. In fact it’s been read and reviewed by approximately five million wannabe runner-writers and in several different languages too I’m sure of it. (I didn’t read them)

I’ve half read Murakami before, in the form of Norwegian Wood, and quite enjoyed the transporting effect of his poetic prose before shelving it for another book*. Given my inability to finish reading any book, regardless of its inherent greatness, it is reassuring to find this Murakami is easy access. Written in a gentle conversational style, rather than the dark-and-twisty-ness of the novels, it flows in time from present-day marathon training back and forth across 25 years of his life.

I’m not sure the book could be classified as a bona fide sports memoir, Murakami doesn’t count himself as an athlete from what I understand, and his ability to use language blows the sports jocks out of the water.  It doesn’t sit well on a shelf with footballers, boxers and cricketers. It’s seems to me more of a memoir memoir because there are too many aspects of life in the pages to be confined to a genre.

Murakami began running in ’82 and has since run a marathon a year, every year, clocking up an average of 6 miles daily over 365 days a year in training. He has also written a fair few novels and other works of international renown. He talks at length about his routines both in running and writing throughout the book.  Discipline and endurance are plain to see in both his hobby and profession; comparisons between the two are sewn into the very spine of it.  His ability to knuckle down is quite inspiring and the self deprecating way Murakami suggests his focus makes up for a lack of talent is endearing. He puts all his success down to hard work, sweating his way through each novel, like he does the punishing miles of a marathon.

However, I can’t help but thinking that, while his lifestyle clearly suits him well (the dude was pushing  60 when he wrote this and still running marathons!), his rigid work ethic lacks space for spontaneity. As someone of lesser talent, I need external stimuli for inspiration sometimes, and I’m left wondering slightly in awe that he plucks all that wordage from his head alone. Occasionally he can be a bit serious. That’s when I find myself wanting to drag him to the pub (or a jazz bar) for a crazy night out.

That said, a quiet humour permeates; I can imagine him smiling to himself in some sentences. Each chapter is accurately stamped with a date and location (from Hawaii to Tokyo to Cambridge, MA) and labelled with titles such as “Even if I had a ponytail back then” and “Who’s going to laugh at Mick Jagger?”.  The sense of time and space is accentuated by detailed descriptions of his training runs which he clearly loves. My favourite parts of the book, other than the training runs, are the times when he gets all philosophical and off on a tangent about getting older/slower.

As yet I don’t know whether What I talk about will provide enough motivation to complete The Marathon Bet but so far it has inspired a determined writing work ethic which was previously so lacking. The Final Verdict: I might actually go the full distance with this book.

*I very rarely finish a book as those of you who followed me from will know, hence The Half Way Through Review.


Grey (The Big Birthday)

It was there.

I saw it glinting in the mirror. Forcing a double-take and a sharp intake of breath.

Thin, smooth silver root to tip, trying unsuccessfully to hide between the blondes and brunettes.

I let it be, for its colour surprises but does not terrify. Neither do the slight creases forming at the edges of my eyes. Without contact lenses I can’t even see them (or anything else for that matter). I know this because on the day of the Big Birthday I spent a good 20 minutes in front of the full length mirror. Do I look fatter? Older? Rougher round the edges? More like my mother? Even a little bit?

Little scars of life which have marked the passing of years are all present. Souvenirs, from white chicken pox rounds on my stomach to the half inch line under the right eyebrow, reminder of a drunken altercation with a pint glass. There are some, lumpen whitened slices, that I am even less proud of. They are remnants of a former self, not the wholesome, new and improved recipe me (with added vitamin C).

I am waiting, still, for the myth of the promised saggy edges. I have been told my metabolism won’t cope with KFC in my thirties. To be fair the women in my family end up crippled and sportless with arthritis by the before they are 45. I refuse to submit to their disease. Refuse to admit that I may, one day, be unable to run.

Anyone who has watched a skincare advert will know how to fight the body aging. Cleanse, tone, moisturise, sleep, eat well, exercise. Nivea and Nigella have got it covered with some help from early morning ‘bootcamp-for-busty-birds’.

Personally I don’t mind the physical manifestations of time but I see others getting older and slower. In mind as well as body. They sit, ensconced in reclining armchairs in front of a box of moving pictures, slowly losing their curiosity. And then their lust. Finally they lose their motivation to change.

As I watch, a particular kind of fear is dawning in my conscious thought. The fear of getting older without anything to show. Wrinkles, grey hair, cellulite, scars; these are inevitable.

I’m talking about a lack of achievement. My parents in their twenties settled down, got careers, a mortgage, a family, happily married and then divorced. They found their conformist place in the world. That was their achievement. I happily wasted my twenties on indecision, fruitless relationships, weekend alcoholism and office temping.

I succumbed, like so many others, to the easy life of 9-5, decent pay, ok pension, debts in check. In routine we forget to think for ourselves. Stop pushing our boundaries. We accept life as it is handed to us. A reasonable enough existence but not enough to force a change.

How do we resist the irresistible draw of complacency?

Look back at the ambitions held as children, teenagers and 20 something’s. What happened to those kids? Have we changed so much as adults that we forgot we wanted to change the world or do something amazing?

Maybe you won’t be an astronaut (there aren’t many vacancies) or maybe you won’t go trekking Asia for a year or run a marathon or build your own grand design house. It seems unachievable, and sometimes it is, so we put it in a box, find excuses and forget about it or continue waiting for the opportunity to arrive. Meanwhile wages must be earned and bills must be paid.

I wanted to be a writer from about the age of 8. There were occasional dalliances with other professions (Tank Driver, Entrepreneur, Professional Athlete, Jazz Singer) but writing was what I came home to after every extramarital fling. Twenty odd years on I was still waiting for the time, the opportunity, the right moment and the relentless wage-slaving to let up.

On the day of the big birthday I looked in the mirror and did a thorough assessment of the grey and the wrinkles. Then a light bulb moment occurred.

I have been procrastinating.

I need to stop waiting for life to come to me, or to at least stop avoiding it altogether.  In a bull-by-the-horns moment, I decided to get off the bench, get back in the game, and start doing.

I made a decision to refuse to stagnate.

Want to join me?